The rules, promoted by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were approved by Pope John Paul II, who in the past has expressed solidarity with the victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
While the Vatican's press office often publicizes many documents, the rules, written in Latin and prepared several months ago, were quietly published in the Holy See's official gazette. The 2001 yearbook of Vatican documents, printed in the last few days and coming to the attention of Vatican watchers on Tuesday, contains the rules.
Handling of pedophilia cases has been a major headache for the church. Besides the sting of moral scandal, dioceses in the United States and other countries have had to deal with expensive claims for financial damages by victims. Last year, a French bishop was convicted in criminal court for keeping silent about a priest who sexually abused children.
The new rules, apparently aimed at centralizing Vatican control of pedophilia cases, also say victims must come make their accusations within 10 years after turning 18. The rules are meant for use by dioceses and religious institutions around the world. They came in the form of a letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close aide of John Paul and the guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy. He wrote that pedophile cases were subject to pontifical secrecy.
Only priests should be involved in the handling of the cases, including those serving as judges, prosecutor or defense advocate in church tribunals, according to the new rules. The Vatican urged local church officials to act swiftly where there is "at least probable knowledge of a grave crime," like pedophilia. The officials should refer the case to the congregation, which then will transmit "appropriate norms" for handling, including a church tribunal at the local level.
By issuing the guidelines, Ratzinger wrote, "it is hoped not only that more grave crimes will be entirely avoided" but especially that church officials would apply "necessary sanctions" to "look after the holiness of the clergy and the faithful."
The letter didn't spell out what sanctions could be taken against priests suspected or proven of being pedophiles, but their removal from the clerical ranks is a possibility.